Ranking All Six Episodes of the Very So-So First Season of ‘Parks and Recreation’
Every show has a “feeling it out” phase, that awkward period when its writers and producers are trying to crack what works and doesn’t. It’s like the worst parts of high school, except witnessed by millions of viewers. Despite being helmed by two of the biggest showrunners in television, Parks and Recreation was no different.
Banking off of the surging popularity of America’s favorite workplace, Michael Schur and Greg Daniels originally pitched Parks and Rec as a spin-off to The Office. However, the series’ six-episode first season also seemed doomed to be its last. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) was completely flat, Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) and Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) were overbearingly obnoxious and Donna (Retta) and April (Aubrey Plaza) barely existed.
Prior to Season Two, significant changes were made to the show that narrowed down its core values and biggest laughs, leading to a remarkable bounce back that led to five more seasons. Notable changes included solidifying Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) competency and noble motivations, her co-workers’ genuine support for her projects and keeping the character of Andy Dwyer as a regular Pawnee fixture rather than being jettisoned after Season One as initially planned.
Much like Seinfeld, rewatching that first season of Parks and Rec makes for a bizarre viewing experience, as there are hints of the show that is to come, but there are some very clear growing pains, too. As such, we’re diving into every episode from Season One and ranking them from worst to best…
Episode 1: ‘Pilot’
Plot: Meet Leslie Knope, the overly enthusiastic local government employee with a nonstop, can-do attitude. The show debuts with Leslie’s attempts to resolve a special citizen’s request by Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) to fill in the pit next to her home as her boyfriend, Andy, recently fell into it, breaking both legs. Ann and Leslie quickly become friends and end up creating a subcommittee that will plan the potential park.
What Works: Though he gets dropped as the series progresses, Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) is actually redeemable in this episode, which helps add to Leslie’s likeability as she isn’t yet fully formed. In addition, the pit works as an excellent story driver as it not only sets up a difficult task but cleverly loops in the Parks Department and the citizens of Pawnee.
What Doesn’t Work: Awkward to a fault, the pilot has the silences reminiscent of the British version of The Office and clearly doesn’t quite grasp its characters yet. Both Tom and Andy are kind of dicks — and not in a charming way — while Leslie comes off as more of a dreamer and less of a doer. She’s more obsessed with her own legacy and not in the childishly inspiring way we come to love about her. Meanwhile, load-bearing characters like Ron, April and Donna are nearly nonexistent.
Episode 2: ‘Canvassing’
Plot: Leslie plans for a town-hall meeting, inviting her mother, Marlene Griggs-Knope. Leslie and the Parks Department go door-to-door to drum up attendance, informing citizens of the possible park nearby. The meeting turns into a disaster, with Leslie needing to filibuster in order to prevent a negative vote for the proposed park.
What Works: The storyline is extremely strong. The door-to-door canvassing broadens the vision of Pawnee, its citizens and what truly makes the town. Also, while he wouldn’t be fully formed until two episodes later, Tom Haverford’s charm begins to emerge when he rallies some of Pawnee’s biggest businesses to the project.
What Doesn’t Work: There are still character inconsistencies with Leslie and Ron. Leslie is driven to a fault here, as she bullies, threatens and insults any Pawnee citizen unwilling to side with her on the park development. Also, Ron cares about his job? He not only supports Leslie’s presentation but shockingly cowers to his superior when asked about the project. Neither traits are what we come to expect from this man; I mean, he’s Ron fucking Swanson!
Episode 5: ‘The Banquet’
Plot: Leslie’s mom is receiving a distinguished award for her years of public service. Presenting the honor, Leslie gets a haircut and brings Ann as her date to the event. During the ceremony, Leslie’s mom recognizes a great way to help fast-track Leslie’s park project by kissing up to a city council member.
What Works: This one is super joke heavy, with everyone finding their characteristic silliness. Leslie’s brash, goal-oriented personality works as she becomes a jester with her new, short haircut, accompanied by her trophy wife, Ann Perkins. With the introduction of more politicians, the town of Pawnee itself begins to form its own set of characters and thus starts to show off more of the town’s personality.
What Doesn’t Work: This is a fairly dull plot, forcing the storyline to sit still for far too long with little, if any, payoff. Centering around the celebration of Marlene Griggs-Knope does sound like a classic episode on paper, but it fails to execute the disastrous event formula that makes the show thrive.
Episode 4: ‘Boys Club’
Plot: After hours, Mark and the rest of the City Planning Department have beers in the courtyard as a regular ritual, which Leslie refers to as the Boys Club. Attempting to join the club, she offers a wine basket that was given as a gift to the department. April also gets into the basket and posts a video of her drinking on social media.
What Works: Finally, Tom Haverford is unleashed in his full Tommy swagger. April awakens too with her underage drinking, and her feud with her sister Natalie is revealed. The Ron Swanson/Leslie Knope friendship shows its first sparks as Ron comes to Leslie’s defense and even takes on the role of protector. Andy starts showing that classic Dwyer shine as well as he finally reveals some appreciation for Ann by cleaning up their house.
What Doesn’t Work: This one is pretty well constructed. Still, something that stands out as inconsistent is Ron Swanson’s care for his job and department. He shows genuine concern over the department and inadvertently “rats out” the city planning division for having beers in the courtyard (which is illegal).
Episode 3: ‘The Reporter’
Plot: Leslie invites a reporter to the Parks Department to create a positive public message about the potential upcoming park project. During the interview, Andy reveals he was drunk the night he fell into the pit, which comes as news to Leslie and Ann. To Leslie’s chagrin, Mark flirts and sleeps with the reporter where he reveals his honest opinions on the park’s future, creating poor press for the plans.
What Works: This episode finally starts to find a bit of a groove with the pacing of the jokes and the consistency of the characters. Leslie becomes a little less egocentric, and Ann comes alive when Leslie loops her in on her and Mark’s sexual past. Ron finally starts to find his voice by demonstrating his lack of production, spending most of his time playing online Scrabble against a purposefully-losing Tom, whom he enjoys due to his absolute lack of work ethic.
What Doesn’t Work: Some pacing issues and awkward silences that last a beat too long remain, revealing a lack of faith in more potent, character-based punchlines. Also, the Leslie and Mark relationship doesn’t work for the series or their characters. Outside of a few buddy-buddy moments, there is zero chemistry between them.
Episode 6: ‘Rock Show’
Plot: Andy invites the entire Parks Department to his band’s gig in celebration of his cast coming off. Leslie can’t go due to a prior commitment that she believes is a meeting, but is revealed to be a blind date set up by her mother. After bringing him with her to the show, Leslie’s date leaves, and she buddies up with a lonely Mark Brendanawicz, who, after more drinking, falls into the infamous pit.
What Works: This is easily the season’s strongest episode, as we finally fully feel how ridiculously hysterical these characters are. The rock show debuts Andy’s band Mouse-Rat (aka Scarecrow Boat and about 50 other names), providing a stupendous soundtrack to the show that only gets better over time. Andy is now fully lovable and goofy, just in time for Ann to finally stand up for herself and break up with him.
What Doesn’t Work: The only fault in this episode is Leslie Knope and Mark Brendanawicz drunkenly kissing. Again, this couple never worked. Leslie would fare much better with Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), whose arrival with Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) at the end of Season Two would literally help the show survive.